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Spring training preview: American League Central

Bruce Rondon, Tigers The Tigers begin camp looking for a role for hard-throwing reliever Bruce Rondon for the second straight year. (Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI)

Over the next few days, Cliff Corcoran, Jay Jaffe and Joe Lemire will break down what to watch in each team’s camp as part of SI.com’s spring training preview by looking at the Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2013. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.

Detroit Tigers

Big Question: How will Brad Ausmus adjust to managing?

Jim Leyland has retired from managing, and the Tigers have handed the reins to Ausmus, a 44-year-old who caught for 18 years in the big leagues but who has never managed except for a short stint leading the Israeli national team. Despite the fact that he lacks experience, is replacing a legend and is leading a World Series contender, expect the transition to be smooth.

Here’s why: Catchers historically are best prepared to be good managers. Bench coach Gene Lamont and pitching coach Jeff Jones remain from Leyland’s staff. Leyland himself, for that matter, is a Tigers advisor. Ausmus, a Dartmouth grad, has impressed previous clubs for whom he interviewed, and he worked in the Padres’ front office. And the team he has inherited is loaded with talent.

Big Prospect: Robbie Ray, LHP

While top prospect Nick Castellanos made his debut and will be counted on to be the everyday third baseman, eyes will shift to the next big thing. There isn’t a surefire star in Detroit’s system (other than, perhaps, Castellanos), but Ray will receive plenty of attention and scrutiny for being a key component of the return in the oft-criticized trade of starter Doug Fister to the Nationals. In 27 starts in High A and Double A last year, Ray had a 3.36 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 142 innings.

Big Position Battle: Set-up man

A year ago, the buzz in Tigers camp was that a rookie with a 100-plus mph fastball might emerge as the team’s closer. That man, Bruce Rondon, never did assume control of the ninth inning. His overall numbers -- 3.45 ERA in 28 2/3 innings with a 9.4 K/9 and 2.73 K/BB -- were fine, but a closer look at his splits reveals an inability to get lefthanders out. Lefties had an .873 OPS, compared to a .608 OPS from righthanded hitters.  Now, Rondon is the presumed favorite to set up new closer Joe Nathan, but the eighth inning could also go to righthander Al Alburquerque or lefthander Ian Krol. Former Yankee Joba Chamberlain lurks as a longshot, if he can regain his early-career form.

Cleveland Indians

Big Question: What will the Opening Day rotation look like?

A lot of questions linger in Cleveland’s starting five. Justin Masterson is the presumed Opening Day starter, but he faces a wide chasm in his arbitration case in his final season before free agency -- will he sign an extension or, even if it’s unlikely, get traded? Last year’s second-half ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, remains unsigned. If his market doesn’t materialize, might he return to Cleveland on a short-term deal?

Rookie Danny Salazar burst onto the scene with 10 great starts to help propel the Indians into the postseason, where it was Salazar who took the ball in the one-game wild card playoff. Will Salazar build off his brilliant start or will he fall victim to the Year-After Effect?

Corey Kluber and Zach McAlister seem entrenched in the middle of the rotation, but neither has a long track record -- will they be able to sustain their success from last year? Will former top-10 pick Trevor Bauer settle into a place where he can consistently contribute in the big leagues? Can Josh Tomlin recapture his 2011 success? Will Carlos Carrasco, who is out of minor league options, win the fifth starter gig by default? Will veteran Shaun Marcum pitch his way into consideration?

Big Prospect: Francisco Lindor, SS

The Indians’ top prospect -- No. 6 in the majors, per Baseball Prospectus -- is the switch-hitting 20-year-old Lindor. He only has 21 games at Double A under his belt, so don’t expect him in the majors on Opening Day, but he will be worth watching this spring as he could find his way to Cleveland before the year is over. Lindor is the heir apparent to Asdrubal Cabrera, who’s in the final year of his contract. Lindor had a terrific .303/.380/.407 batting line in 104 games split between High A and Double A last year while fashioning “near elite potential with the glove,” per BP.

Big Position Battle: Third base

Two of the Indians’ brightest prospects from the last few seasons, Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall, will be vying for playing time at third base for very different reasons. Santana, a catcher by trade, has emerged as an offensive star but not as strong of a defender as upstart Yan Gomes; with Nick Swisher entrenched at first base, Santana is re-learning third -- where he played 58 games early in his minor league career -- so that Cleveland can keep his bat in the lineup more often while allowing other players a chance to rest their legs somewhat as the designated hitter.

Chisenhall, meanwhile, ranked as high as No. 25 on Baseball America’s 2011 prospect list, yet he has struggled in parts of three big league seasons with a .694 OPS in 203 games. The 25-year-old former first-round pick is running out of chances to establish himself as an everyday player. Should Santana falter defensively and Chisenhall not emerge, veteran utility player Mike Aviles and former Yankees prospect David Adams are next in line.

Kansas City Royals

Big Question: Can Mike Moustakas get back on track?

The Royals addressed their most glaring offseason needs this winter -- signing Omar Infante to play second base, adding Jason Vargas to the rotation and trading for Norichika Aoki to play rightfield -- but their plan to improve third-base production (which ranked 25th in the majors) is internal. Moustakas is a former No. 2 overall pick who slugged 36 minor league homers in 2010 but who thus far hasn’t been the impact bat everyone envisioned. He’s hit just 37 homers in 374 big leagues games over two and a half seasons with a .681 OPS, which adjusts to an 85 OPS+ (15 percent below league average).

This offseason Moustakas played winter ball in Venezuela, where he played for the Royals’ hitting coach, Pedro Grifol. Moustakas also reportedly lost 10 pounds while improving strength and flexibility. It may be his last chance to enter spring training as the penciled-in starting third baseman without showing better results. This spring we’ll start to see if his offseason program has worked.

Big Prospect: Kyle Zimmer, RHP

The Royals’ previous wave of prospects failed to produce a frontline starter, but the organization hopes Zimmer can succeed where his predecessors did not. The 6-foot-3 righthander was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft and dominated in four Double A starts (1.93 ERA) after struggling earlier in the summer while making 18 starts at the High A level (4.82 ERA). He gets swings-and-misses -- he has an 11.1 K/9 rate in two minor league seasons -- and could be a factor in the second half of the major league season.

Big Position Battle: Fifth starter

Rookie Yordano Ventura, a precocious 22-year-old righthander, threw a pitch 102.8 miles per hour while making three eye-opening September starts for the Royals after striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings in 134 2/3 minor league innings. The fifth starter job is probably Ventura’s to lose (and it’s worth noting he’s also a candidate for the aforementioned Year-After Effect), but former No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar, who had a resurgence in the bullpen last season, will be in the mix. So too will at least three others: Wade Davis, who was acquired along with James Shields from the Rays a year ago; Danny Duffy, a prospect who returned last season after having Tommy John surgery; and Chris Dwyer, a big lefthander who is coming off a very good season in Triple A.

Minnesota Twins

Big Question: Can Miguel Sano play his way onto the Opening Day roster?

Given the state of the Twins and their three straight seasons with 96 or more losses, spring training attention will rightly center on the bright future of two of the game’s very best prospects, third baseman Miguel Sano and centerfielder Byron Buxton. Only Sano, who will turn 21 in May, is expected to reach the majors this year after putting up a .915 OPS and 19 home runs in 67 Double A games in 2013. Admittedly, he has some contact issues -- more than 140 strikeouts each of the last two years and a .236 average in Double A -- but he has formidable power from the right side and could supplant incumbent third baseman Trevor Plouffe.

While there’s no reason to rush Sano when the Twins are a year or two away from contending, the franchise proved last year that it was not shy about starting a prospect on Opening Day, as it did with centerfielder Aaron Hicks, who also hadn’t played above Double A before cracking the big league roster.

Big Prospect: Byron Buxton, CF

Buxton, the former No. 2 overall pick who turned 20 in December, topped out in High A ball last year, and his first full professional season was superlative with a .334/.424/.520 batting line. Adding to that were 19 doubles, 18 triples, 12 home runs and 55 stolen bases in 125 total games. With that offense and potential Gold Glove defense, there’s little wonder why Baseball Prospectus named him the game’s top overall prospect. Don’t be surprised when there are bigger crowds around his spring workouts than around most of the players on the 25-man roster.

Big Position Battle: Designated Hitter

The Twins’ offense, which mustered just 614 runs last year (13th in the AL), needs to better support what should be an improved pitching staff now led by Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Minnesota’s only notable offensive addition was to bring back Jason Kubel on a minor league deal. Kubel had three straight seasons of 20 or more homers as a Twin and hit 30 in his first of two years in Arizona before struggling mightily in 2013, with just five homers and a .610 OPS in 97 games. He and Chris Herrmann (.565 OPS in 64 career games) will compete for lefthanded at bats at DH; Joe Mauer is also likely to get some at bats at DH, though it’s a less necessary resting place for him now that he’s given up catching. Righthanded slugger Josh Willingham, who typically mans leftfield, will probably log some playing time at DH too.

Chicago White Sox

Big Question: How will the bullpen roles shake out?

The White Sox traded set-up men Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton last summer and then swapped closer Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks for third baseman Matt Davidson this offseason, meaning the bullpen’s most high-profile names are all gone. To support holdovers Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, Donnie Veal, Charles Leesman and Jake Petricka, the Sox added free agents Scott Downs, Ronald Belisario and Mitchell Boggs. Notably, all three new additions rely on heavy sinkers, a pitch that profiles well in cozy U.S. Cellular. Jones is expected to get the first crack at the ninth inning, but nothing is set in stone about the order in which the relievers will be deployed this season.

Big Prospect: Jose Abreu, 1B

There would be enough attention on any first baseman who is replacing franchise legend Paul Konerko (who’s returning in a reserve role), but it’ll be heightened on Abreu because he’s a massive 6-foot-3, 260 pounds; he received a six-year, $68 million contract; he is sight-unseen to most U.S. fans; and he’s the latest in the recent pipeline from Cuba to the U.S. that has produced some instant success stories. That latter group includes the DodgersYasiel Puig, the AthleticsYoenis Cespedes and the RedsAroldis Chapman, not to mention recent or current White Sox Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez. Abreu, 27, is a former record-setting home run hitter and MVP in his native country.

Big Position Battle: Third base

That Chicago was willing to trade Reed to Arizona for Davidson suggests that the club expects Davidson -- a former top-100 prospect who logged his first 31 big league games for the Diamondbacks last season -- to eventually claim this position, but that might not happen out of camp. Conor Gillaspie started 107 games at third for the White Sox last year and Jeff Keppinger is in just the second season of his three-year free-agent deal. Neither of those two, however, impressed much at the plate, with a .695 OPS for Gillaspie and a .600 mark for Keppinger, who divided his time between third, second, first and DH.
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